MUMBAI, India — It stars a hard-core adult film actress and has a title that would appear to leave little to the imagination. But it’s not a porn movie – Bollywood is certainly not ready for that.
“Jism 2” – the word means “body” in Hindi language – will be released across India on Friday, promising to be one of the most graphic films in Bollywood history. It shows no frontal nudity – government censors monitoring a film industry that long refused to show onscreen kissing would never clear that. But with its oil massages and fantastic lingerie, the film is pushing the ever-widening sexual boundaries enjoyed by many in urban India.
At the same time, growing sexual freedom has sparked a backlash by traditionalists who have torn down its risque poster, led a crackdown on bars in Mumbai and even advocated an informal curfew for women.
First, a few words about the movie’s title.
Director Pooja Bhatt insists there was no double entendre intended.
But the title, coupled with the oeuvre of the film’s leading lady, Sunny Leone, set off alarm bells at Apple, Google and YouTube.
Apple rejected the filmmakers’ request to list “Jism 2” – a sequel to the 2003 film “Jism” – on its Movie Talkies app.
“They wrote to us saying I’m sorry it’s a rude word, this is porn,” Bhatt said. “We said no it’s not, it’s a legitimate Hindi film and the word j-i-s-m actually means body.”
Google ultimately allowed the filmmakers to tag their ads with “jism” and “Sunny Leone,” and YouTube allowed the promotional videos, said Alnoor Merchant, head of digital marketing for the film. Apple, though, is insisting the filmmakers either remove the promotional photos of Leone or restrict the content with an adult rating, he said.
The film has already caused a minor stir in Mumbai, where filmmakers had to remove posters featuring a glowing image a woman’s arched naked body draped in a wet white sheet after a local politician complained.
“You’ll always have these two polarities,” said Mahesh Bhatt, Pooja’s father and the screenwriter for “Jism 2.” “Pretending to police the moral values of a society is the easiest way for politicians to earn brownie points.”
Leone, born in Canada to Indian immigrants, said she thought she would be run out of town when she appeared on the Indian reality television show Bigg Boss last year. “I didn’t think the Indian public would actually like me,” she said. “I’ve done everything that I could do wrong in the Indian culture.”
Instead, Mahesh Bhatt – a famously outspoken Bollywood provocateur – offered her the lead in “Jism 2” on live television.
“The young generation of people are ready to see somebody like me on TV, obviously, or I wouldn’t be here,” Leone said.
For decades, Indian cinematic sexuality was a marvel of indirection. There were swelling songs, innervating rain storms, and jiggly dances, but no onscreen kissing.
The tides began to turn in 1996 with a long, sultry kiss in “Raja Hindustani” (“Indian King”). Today, Bollywood films are bursting with smooches. Pooja Bhatt’s cousin, the actor Emraan Hashmi, is known as “the kissing king.”
With Bollywood increasingly focused on the more liberal Indian diaspora and upwardly mobile urbanites, traditional audiences have turned to regional language cinema, said Bhaskar Mukhopadhyay, a lecturer in cultural studies at the University of London.
Leone is not the only Indian woman to profit from the shifting norms. In November, Sherlyn Chopra, a minor Bollywood actress, will be the first Indian featured in Playboy magazine, according to a tweet by Playboy founder Hugh Hefner. Though Playboy is banned in India, the media frenzy has elevated her from bit player to bombshell.
As the traditional divide between the good Indian woman in a sari and the bad, sexually available Western woman in jeans breaks down, it is fueling a backlash.
Police in Mumbai, perhaps India’s most cosmopolitan city, have been rounding up young women at bars in a morals campaign led by a hockey-stick wielding cop. The crackdown has used a long-ignored law that requires anyone consuming alcohol to have a government permit. Several women wearing revealing Western clothes were detained and accused of being prostitutes.
In March, police in a New Delhi suburb suggested women be home by 8 p.m. for their own protection, after a woman was gang-raped on the way home from work in a bar.
“There is a strong backlash against increasing economic freedom – against a certain kind of Indian woman who likes to wear what she pleases and eat and drink out at restaurants and pubs because she can now afford to,” said Nandini Ramnath, film correspondent for Mint newspaper. “The sad thing is that women like Sherlyn Chopra are not blazing any feminist trail. They are reinforcing a notion that women are objects. They increase anxiety among the self-appointed moral guardians.”
Mukhopadhyay says the backlash shows “the reaction of the have-nots, their grievances, their anger.”
“There is a small upper class, the so called creamy layer, who can enjoy the benefits of Western media and lifestyle,” he said. “The rest can’t.”
Even the filmmakers seem to suffer some ambivalence about their star. The silent presence of someone’s old-fashioned parents lurked in the great ballroom where they unveiled the film to the press last week.
Bhatt and her father offered reassurances that they are not trying to sneakily expose India’s children to dirty pictures and that the sex scenes will make no one cringe. At heart, they say, the film is an old fashioned love story.
Why back away from the sexiness they claim to embrace?
Pooja Bhatt said she wants to get her movie into theaters without trouble and will continue to fight to make “fiercely sensual” films for adult Indian audiences.
“Look at the population of the country,” Bhatt said. “Someone is having sex.”